April Showers

I had two days off this week – two rainy days.  Since I’ve started a little vegetable garden, I am actually appreciating the rainy days.  Why?  Well, the sunny windowsill in my apartment is getting a little overcrowded with seedlings now and the bigger ones just need to get outdoors.  Overcast, slightly rainy days are actually the perfect condition (or so I’ve read) to start hardening off, or getting seedlings accustomed to being outside.  A dry, sunny day can fry tender little seedlings, and temperatures too close to freezing are obviously no good either.  I’ve never really had a very green thumb so I’ve been taking lessons from Rose Marie Nichols-McGee and Maggie Stuckey in the form of their book, The Bountiful Container.

jiffy pellets & mini greenhouse

I do however, have a singular childhood memory of picking cherry tomatoes in the summer, from the small garden that my mother used to have.  Even though I didn’t like eating tomatoes as a child, I loved picking them – the smell of the vines, the light dusting of pollen on the fruit, and just being outside in the sun with my hands in the dirt.  Like I said, I wasn’t crazy about tomatoes, but the homegrown variety were certainly far less offensive than the disgusting, mealy beefsteak tomatoes that were the grocery store standard at the time.  Now, with the presence of supermarkets like Whole Foods in the suburbs, and a wider choice of ethnic markets, and farmer’s markets around the city we no longer have to settle for one mealy type of tomatoes.  Almost any kind of produce is available to the average consumer.  So why bother growing my own?  Freshness for one.  Sure, tomatoes, avacados and citrus fruits might be available year round at any local grocery, but they are being shipped thousands of miles from Mexico, Peru, and sunnier parts of the country like Florida and California.  How fresh can they possibly be?

So, every Spring I fall prey to a longing to move to someplace like California.  Anyone who had been to the farmer’s market at San Francisco’s Ferry Building can attest to the gorgeous and delicious array of fresh edibles available year round.  Still, I’ve known people who have grown up in the Northeast and moved to milder climates, only to return.  One of the most surprising reasons is that they miss the change of the seasons.   Deep down, I think I would miss the cycle of toughing out snowy blustery Winters that clear the way for the hopeful new blossoms of Spring; and the lushness of lazy Summers that always seem to be cut too short by the onset of Autumn.  The seasons change the way that we live, the way that we feel – both emotionally as well as physically – and the way that we eat.  So reason number two for growing my own vegetables is to find out first hand what eating seasonally and locally means by actually bringing my food from seed to table.

(Oh, and do I need to mention all the food scares in the media? Salmonella in pistachios and peanut butter? Melamine in baby formula?  At least I’ll know where my vegetables came from.)

Well, you can’t get more local, fresh, and seasonal than your own backyard.  For my first vegetable garden, I figured I’d keep it small and grow a few things from containers on the small balcony of my apartment.  The Bountiful Container does warn small space gardeners like me against going seed crazy – and wisely so.  Catalogs and online suppliers offer seeds for a dizzying array of vegetables and I could see how it might be easy to get over-ambitious.  As advised I made a plan, first limiting my purchases to heritage and organic seeds, then choosing produce we consume regularly, such as tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini, and herbs such as cilantro, oregano, and dill.  I also chose a few items that we were unlikely to find at the grocery, such as lemon chiles, lemon cucumbers, greek basil, and edible flowers.  Even with my plan, I think I may have gotten a little over-zealous myself.

Still, not a bad start.  I planted my first set of seedlings at the end of March using Jiffy peat pellets and a little plastic greenhouse tray.  I’ve had to re-pot the tomato plants once already and they are also outgrowing the deli-containers that I’ve been using as makeshift cloches to protect them from our cats.  This first set of seedlings are going outside this week to make room on the windowsill for the second set that I planted yesterday.

So with Spring comes hope – hope that my thumb gets a little greener, hope that my little seedlings will thrive outdoors, and hope that with some organization and a little help from mother nature, we will be able to enjoy the fruits of my labor from late May through September.

A Taste of Mexico: Braised Pork Belly Tacos

I’ve been getting quite the education on Mexican food and culture at work, since many of the kitchen staff and runners are from Mexico. Every Sunday, during their break between brunch and dinner, one of the runners picks up tacos and tortas from a nearby Mexican joint for the staff. My favorite is carnitas, or slow roasted pork, with a simple traditional garnish of lettuce, onions, cilantro, lime, and a choice of red or green salsa.

 At home, I like to make soft tacos with braised pork belly. Yes, pork belly has become almost a culinary cliche and it seems every day another restaurant in the city jumps on the bandwagon. But it is a wonderfully forgiving and flavorful cut of meat and slow braising pork belly makes it ultra tender and moist. It is the cut of pork that bacon is made from, so there is a lot of fat, but slow braising renders out a good deal of it anyway. The acidity of salsa verde, pickled onion, and lime juice, and the bright citrusy flavor of cilantro balance out the rest. This recipe is adapted from a demonstration given by Aaron Sanchez at the French Culinary Institute while I was a student there.

You will note that the recipe calls for annatto paste. Derived from the seed pods of the achiote tree, it is commonly used in Central and South American cooking to add color and flavor. I find it adds more color than flavor so you can omit it if you don’t have any on hand. Incidentally, annatto is also the pigment that gives Cheddar cheese it’s orange glow.

Link to the full Recipe:  Braised Pork Belly Tacos

Pies Please

My friend Christine is an avid home baker. We met a few years ago when her husband and I were working at the same firm. His desk was next to mine, and he would regularly rave about her cakes, shortbread, and pies – particularly her peach pie. She recently confided in me that she used Crisco (*yikes*) to make her pie crusts, and didn’t like the idea of using hydrogenated oil, so she wanted me to show her what fraisage was all about and how to use it to make all-butter pie crust.  Since we hadn’t seen each other in months, we made plans yesterday to have lunch and make pies together.

I had picked up some beautiful zucchini earlier this week, so I decided to make a Vegetable Torte.  Christine settled on making her almost-famous Peach Pie.  So after some lunch and much needed coffee, we put on some serious chick music  a la Carol King, Juice Newton (Oh yeah, because Angel of the Morning is a classic thank you very much), Christina Aguilera, Etta James, etc.. and got to work.

Christine’s delectable Peach Pie

Now, I’ve made butter pie crust a million times.  I’ve never actually even tried any other types of fat (though I might try lard the next time I make a meat pie). I’d been using fraisage ever since I read about it in the July 2004 issue of Cooks Illustrated.  Thing is, I’ve never taught anyone to do it, and as I discovered, that’s a totally different thing.

First I pulled out two cutting boards, two knives, two of everything so that Christine and I could work alongside each other.  Then we diced up our butter and put it in the freezer to get nice and chilled.  That went smoothly, and while we waited, we logged onto the internet to see what the latest cover of US Weekly was all about.  After spotting it in the checkout line, we just had to know what was going on with Jessica Simpson’s weight.

Butter chilled, we set up to cut it into the flour.  Because Christine doesn’t have a food processor, we decided to do everything by hand so it would be as close as possible to the way she would make the recipe at home.  Now here is where we hit a little snag.  Christine was using my wire pastry cutter and I was using a plastic bench scraper.  The wires of the pastry cutter weren’t doing a very good job of cutting through the cold hard butter.  So I finished cutting my flour and butter, then handed Christine the bench scraper so she could cut hers.  In the meantime the butter in both our bowls were approaching room temperature.  When we added the water, it didn’t seem to be getting absorbed by the flour and was difficult to tell how much water we needed.  I thought that if we continued with the fraisage, it would help to blend the water into the dough.  So I quickly fraisaged my dough then helped Christine with hers.  All the while, both our doughs were sitting out at room temperature getting warmer and warmer.  They seemed crumbly and dry so we tried to incorporate more water into them, but they still didn’t seem to absorb anything.  By the time we were gathering the doughs into discs, mine had started sticking to the table, and Christine’s was so dry it was crumbling apart.   I knew things didn’t feel or look right, but we stuck them in the fridge and hoped for the best.  Meanwhile we both prepared our fillings, and did a little Facebook-ing.

When it came time to roll the doughs out, I was embarrassed to find that it was a little disastrous.  Sure, we managed to get the crusts into the pie pans, and the pies both actually turned out delicious, but the road getting there was not exactly the smoothest, and the crusts probably were not as flaky as they could have been.  Both our doughs were crumbly and had no elasticity.  There just didn’t seem to be enough moisture even though we had kept adding water.  My dough only began to take shape once the butter started to melt.  Then it was greasy and started to stick to the table, but I couldn’t move it dust underneath with flour because it was so brittle.  Christine had similar problems with hers.  Even though the pies turned out, I was disappointed because I was afraid that Christine went home with the impression that what we did was more complicated and difficult than it actually was.

Vegetable Torta (click to go to recipe page)

So what went wrong?  More importantly, how could I have fixed it?  Today I was determined to figure it out.  So alone I went about making butter pie crust again – this time, paying extra attention to how the dough felt and looked at each step (and taking photos!).  First, I realized teaching someone to do something always takes longer than simply doing it yourself.  Obvious, I know.  It also occured to me that rule number one of making butter pie crust is to keep the butter COLD, and even at the first step of cutting the flour and butter together, we took so long that the butter had come to almost to room temperature.  Today after cutting my butter and flour together, I put the mixture in the freezer for a few minutes just as a precautionary measure, but I might have saved us some grief if I had done this yesterday when I realized the butter was getting too warm.  The second mistake was in the way I demonstrated the fraisage. The butter already approaching room temperature, we should have tried an alternative method using a bench scraper or rubber spatula.  Instead, we used our hands, which just caused the butter to melt further.  The fraisage just worked the melted butter into the flour more, and inhibited its ability to absorb moisture.  By this point there was not much that could have been done to save the dough.

So using what I learned from yesterday’s mishaps, making pie crust today went as smoothly as can be (Whew!).  I ended up using it to make a deep dish Cardamom Pumpkin Tart, which I can say with absolute certainty (and Boyfriend will back me up on this…) had the flakiest crust I’d ever made. It would have been even better with fresh pumpkin, but it I really needed to use up a can of pumpkin puree which I had sitting around since Thanksgiving 2007.

Cardamom Pumpkin Tart
Cardamom Pumpkin Tart (click to go to recipe page)

So the next time I have someone over for a workshop day, I think I’ll take a cue from the way they taught us in culinary school.  Instead of working on our doughs at the same time, I should have demonstrated the recipe for Christine first, then helped her with her dough.  This way she could have seen the whole process first, then I would have been able to pay more attention to what I was doing during the demonstration, and to what she was doing when it was her turn. Oh well, live and learn…Now all I have to figure out is do I want Peach Pie or Cardamom Pumpkin Tart with my coffee?

Recipes:

All Butter Pie Crust

(link to detailed recipe with photos)

INGREDIENTS for a single 9″ pie crust:

(for a double pie crust, simply double the recipe)

1-1/4 c. flour
1/2 tsp. table salt or 1 tsp. coarse kosher salt
1-1/2 tsp. sugar (optional, for sweet pies)
8 Tbsp. butter, diced
3-4 Tbsp. ice water, plus more if needed

PROCEDURE:

1.    Chill the pieces of butter in the freezer.

2.    Cut the ingredients together, starting with the butter and flour:

Using a food processor:  Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor.  Sprinkle the butter cubes over the flour mixture and just pulse a few times until it starts to resemble to texture of wet sand, with pieces of butter no bigger than a small pea. Pulse a few times more, adding just enough ice water for the dough to start to clump together.

By hand:  In a bowl or on a flat work surface, sprinkle the pieces of butter over the flour and salt mixture.  Using a pastry cutter, or bench scraper, quickly cut the butter into the flour until there are pieces no bigger than a pea.  Check to make sure the pieces of butter are still firm, and chill the mixture in the freezer if needed before adding the water.  Sprinkle the water over the butter flour mixture and cut it into the dough, adding more as needed until the dough begins to clump together.

3.   Fraisage.  Though it is not necessary, using a technique a known as fraisage to blend the dough will help you achieve a flakier crust when using only butter.  The traditional way is to turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and using the heel of your hand, to smear the dough a little at a time against the board.  I find the heat of your hand causes the butter to melt too quickly so I prefer to use a plastic bench scraper.  You can also transfer the dough to a large bowl instead, and use a rubber spatula to smear the dough against the side of the bowl.

4.    Rest the dough.  On a lightly floured surface, gather the dough into a disc (or two, for a double crust pie) by  gathering up the sides with one hand while pressing on the top with the other.  Wrap the disc in plastic wrap. You can  flatten the disc a little more once it’s wrapped – the plastic wrap helps to hold it together.  Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before rolling.

5.    Roll your crust.  If the dough has gotten too hard from chilling, let it sit for a few minutes at room temperature.  Unwrap it, and on a lightly floured surface, use your rolling pin to press gently on the disc from the middle outward.  Flatten it out until your knuckles touch the work surface.  Then, starting from the middle, roll first away from you, then toward you.  Rotate the dough (or your rolling pin) 45 degrees and roll again, from the middle outward.  Continue rotating and rolling until the dough is about 1/8″ thick.

6. To transfer the dough to the pie plate, you can either roll it onto the rolling pin and unroll it over the plate, or fold the dough in half, then half again and unfold it over the pie plate.

7. For best results, refrigerate the prepared pie plate and let the dough to rest for another 30 minutes before filling or blind baking. This will also improve the texture of the crust and reduce shrinkage during baking.

Torta Salata

(link to detailed recipe and photos)

This is one of my favorite almost vegetarian recipes. It’s really simple, and is a great way to make a hearty meal out of couple pounds of vegetables. Almost any firm vegetable will work, as long as it is not too wet. I usually use zucchini, which I salt to draw out the moisture, then drain before using. Whatever you use, make sure you season the vegetables before using them, and that you have enough to tightly fill the pie plate. The egg and cheese mixture adds a nice creamy texture, and binds the whole thing together.

For the pastry, I usually like to use puff pastry, but you can use a regular pie crust, or omit the pastry altogether. Here is the recipe using zucchini, which is adapted from Savoring Italy, by Robert Freson.

Ingredients for a 9″ torta:

a single 9′ pie crust or puff pastry crust

1-1/2 lbs. zucchini, sliced into 1/4″ discs

2 whole eggs

3 egg yolks

1/2 c. ricotta cheese

3 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese

a pinch of nutmeg

kosher or other coarse salt

pepper

additional egg wash (optional)

Procedure:

1. Lay the slices of zucchini out in a single layer on a cooling rack or cookie sheet lined with several paper towels or a clean cotton towel. Generously sprinkle with salt and set aside.

2. Meanwhile prepare your pastry crust and line the pie plate. Set aside in the refrigerator.

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

4. In a medium sized bowl, beat together the eggs and egg yolks. Gently mix in the cheeses, and season with a pinch of nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

5. Using paper towels or a clean cloth towel, blot the zucchini dry then arrange them tightly in the prepared pie plate. Pour in the egg mixture so that it fills in the gaps and just covers the vegetables.

6. Brush the edges of the pastry with egg wash, if desired, and bake the torta for 40-50 minutes until the center is firm and the top is golden brown. Cool for 3 minutes before cutting.

Cardamom Pumpkin Tart

(link to detailed recipe and photos)

Here is a slightly Asian spin on an American favorite. It’s a recipe I came up with on the fly one Thanksgiving when I was cooking at Boyfriend’s sister’s apartment. I started with a recipe for pumpkin pie from the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, which called for nutmeg and a host of other spices, some of which our host didn’t have. So I had to improvise. She happened to have cardamom, which she liked to use in her apple pie. So I decided to use just use some cardamom and ginger, and it was a surprise hit. One guest said she usually didn’t like pumpkin pie, but liked this one. I like to use a deep dish tart pan with fluted edges, which works great with both flour and graham cracker crusts.

Ingredients (for a 9″ deep dish tart or pie):

1 recipe 9″ pie crust

1 15 oz. can pumpkin puree

1 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 – 1 tsp. ground ginger (optional)

1/4 tsp. ground cardamom

1/2 tsp. table salt (or 1 tsp. coarse kosher salt)

2/3 cup heavy cream

2/3 cup whole milk

4 large eggs

Procedure:

1. Blind bake the crust: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F, and position the oven rack to the lower-middle position. Prepare your crust and line the tart pan or pie pan. Line the crust with parchment or aluminum foil and weigh it down with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15-25 minutes until golden.

2. Meanwhile prepare the filling. Timing is important here, since the filling must be warm, and poured into the crust when it’s hot out of the oven. In a medium saucepan, over medium heat stir together the pumpkin puree, brown sugar, spices, and salt. Stirring continuously, cook the pumpkin until it’s thick and shiny.

3. Whisk in the cream and milk, and simmer a minute or two, stirring to prevent the mixture from scalding. Remove from heat and set aside to cool while you beat the eggs.

4. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until they are well blended. Temper the eggs by adding half the warm pumpkin mixture, whisking to combine. Add the rest of the pumpkin and whisk until all the ingredients are blended together.

5. When the crust is ready, remove the weights and liner, and immediately pour the filling into the hot crust. Raise the temperature of the oven to 400 degrees and bake the tart for 25 minutes until the crust is golden brown, the filling is puffed up, and the center just barely wiggles when you move the pan. If you overcook the pie, the filling will crack.

6. Cool completely before serving.

7. Try serving the tart with fresh unsweetened whipped cream drizzled with honey (or try sweetening the whipped cream with a little honey instead of sugar).

Torta Salata (Vegetable Torte)

This is one of my favorite almost vegetarian recipes.  It’s really simple, and is a great way to make a hearty meal out of couple pounds of vegetables.  Almost any firm vegetable will work, as long as it is not too wet.  I usually use zucchini, which I salt to draw out the moisture, then drain before using.  Whatever you use, make sure you season the vegetables before using them, and that you have enough to tightly fill the pie plate.  The egg and cheese mixture adds a nice creamy texture, and binds the whole thing together.

Torta Salata with Zucchini, using all butter pie crust

For the pastry, I usually like to use puff pastry, but you can use a regular pie crust, or omit the pastry altogether.  Here is the recipe using zucchini, which is adapted from Savoring Italy, by Robert Freson.

Ingredients for a 9″ torta:

a single 9′ pie crust or puff pastry crust

1-1/2 lbs. zucchini, sliced into 1/4″ discs

2 whole eggs

3 egg yolks

1/2 c. ricotta cheese

3 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese

a pinch of nutmeg

kosher or other coarse salt

pepper

additional egg wash (optional)

Procedure:

1.  Lay the slices of zucchini out in a single layer on a cooling rack or cookie sheet lined with several paper towels or a clean cotton towel.  Generously sprinkle with salt and set aside.

2.  Meanwhile prepare your pastry crust and line the pie plate.  Set aside in the refrigerator.

3.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

4.  In a medium sized bowl, beat together the eggs and egg yolks.  Gently mix in the cheeses, and season with a pinch of nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

5.  Using paper towels or a clean cloth towel, blot the zucchini dry then arrange them tightly in the prepared pie plate.  Pour in the egg mixture so that it fills in the gaps and just covers the vegetables.

6.  Brush the edges of the pastry with egg wash, if desired, and bake the torta for 40-50 minutes until the center is firm and the top is golden brown.  Cool for 3 minutes before cutting.

Zucchini Torta Salata fresh from the oven

Ideas and Variations:

This torta is also delicious using swiss chard stems or asparagus in place of the zucchini.  To prepare swiss chard or asparagus for use in this recipe, simply blanch them for a couple of minutes in generously salted boiling water, then cool in ice water.  Drain, then cut into 1-2 inch lengths and assemble the torte as directed above.  If you are using asparagus be sure to trim or peel the tough ends from the asparagus before blanching.

Try using Homemade Ricotta instead of store bought.

This recipe is featured in the post Pies Please.

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T minus 16 Hours and Counting…

Well, I headed it off as long as I could, but I knew at some point I would have to work brunch.  I’m not much of a morning person.  OK, I am NOT a morning person.  On a normal day, I barely manage to drag myself out of bed by 10 a.m.  Then I putt around the house for a few hours in my pajamas before heading off to work.  It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I’m usually up until 3 or 4 a.m. writing.  So when the new schedule went up last week, I breathed a sigh of resignation at not only being assigned the brunch shift on Saturday, but a double shift to boot.  It had been in the wind for a while.   Gloria and Flaca had been working doubles on Saturday and Sunday for a long time and eventually my turn had to come around.

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Gloria and Flaca, keeping entertained while working a double shift....

So, Friday night after my dinner shift I tried to be diligent and get to bed at a reasonable hour, but Boyfriend’s co-worker had lent him a bootleg of Grand Tourino which we ended up watching until 3 a.m.  In reality, Boyfriend fell asleep before the movie ended.  Anyway, four hours later, I hit the snooze button a few times, then finally stumbled out of bed.  7:30 in the morning, what the f—?  walk dog…no time for coffee…what? frost on my car? ugh…

Continue reading “T minus 16 Hours and Counting…”

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